It was the morning after an uncommonly bad weekend for the New York Rangers. The Boston Bruins had humiliated them two days before, for all the nation to see on TV, by scoring six goals in the indecently short space of 6½ minutes. The Montreal Canadiens had shut them out the night before. Now, in the Rangers' office in Madison Square Garden, a radio newsman with a tape recorder extinguished a cigaret, threw a long arm around Coach Phil Watson's shoulders and said, "Phil, with startling suddenness disaster has struck the Rangers. What are you going to do about it'"
"What do you mean, disaster?" rasped Watson. "We're still in second place, aren't we?" And, by George, so they were, until Detroit dumped them to third the following week. With half the season completed, the Rangers had been having the best of it in the real National Hockey League race—the scramble among the five underprivileged teams for the three Stanley Cup playoff positions that will remain after the overpowering Canadiens clinch first place.
It is typical of the season—as peculiar a campaign as you are likely to see in the NHL—that the Canadiens entered last week with the only better-than-.500 average in the standings and a remarkable 18-point lead, despite having lost most of their stars for long periods through injury.
It is typical of the Rangers—as unpredictable a team as you are likely to find in hockey—that they started a five-game road trip last week in a terrible slump, not having won since December 22. It is perhaps also typical, if hardly credible, that they won five and tied one of their first seven games with the mighty Canadiens and still held a 5-4-1 advantage over them this week.
The thing was, the Rangers were being a lot cheekier than almost anyone had thought possible. Granted, they had made the playoffs the last two seasons with approximately the same players, but the hockey writers in their preseason poll could see them no higher than fifth.
Well, by the time the Rangers had vaulted into first place for 10 days in November—their first visit there in a good many years—and had defeated the Canadiens in two consecutive games, thereby slaking a 16-year thirst, there hadn't been so much uplifted spirit in the Garden since the Rev. Billy Graham's midsummer crusade for another group of passionate followers.
Undeniably a large measure of credit for the Rangers' revival is due to Phil Watson. A brilliant and quarrelsome center on the successful prewar Rangers, Fiery Phil became coach in 1955 and tongue-lashed the Rangers into third place by the following spring. He needled them through a fourth-place finish last year, and started the current season characteristically by announcing, "Anyone who drags his fanny will drag it to Providence [a Ranger farm team]."
On opening day the Rangers had: two established stars in Andy Bathgate, who set a Ranger scoring record of 77 points last season, during which he was hailed as a new superstar, and Bill Gadsby, the high-scoring defense-man; a nucleus of eight good journeyman forwards; a good but not first-rate goalie in Lorne Worsley; a not-very-solid corps of defensemen behind Gadsby; and four lackluster young forwards, three of whom M. Needle, as Watson was by now known, eventually threatend to fire.
In their first 10 games the Rangers played slightly better than .500 hockey, and little Gump Worsley had the best goals-against average of any goalie in the league. Dean Prentice blossomed as a very fine left wing. Defenseman Harry Howell, who had been replaced as captain by Center Red Sullivan, displayed an aggressive new style that silenced the yahoos in the galleries who had given him the bird last year. The Rangers were alive and exciting and were drawing about 4,000 more customers to the Garden per night than in the last miserable season before the Watson regime.
Then Gump Worsley pulled a thigh muscle and up from Providence came 25-year-old Marcel Paille. The tall, plump and phlegmatic Marcel shut out Boston in his first major league game. Watson and the Rangers' general manager, Muzz Patrick, liked Paille's stand-up style. They reflected that Worsley made many a sensational save, but was frequently down and out of position for the rebound shot. Naturally they were delighted that Paille lost only one of his first 10 games.
Tiny Camille (The Eel) Henry, at 148 pounds the smallest of NHL players, was scoring goals at a pace that would give him NHL leadership last week after 43 games of the 70-game schedule. The defensemen, hopped up on Watson's rhetoric, were checking hard if not always effectively; Leapin' Lou Fontinato, whose roughhouse tactics are like a tonic to Ranger fans, was on the way to leading the league for time spent in the penalty box.
Famine soon followed feast. Bathgate aggravated an old knee injury and the Rangers won only one of seven games while he was out. They dropped one more after he returned, but then spurted again with four victories and two ties in six games. At the 35-game midseason mark they trailed Montreal by only four points. Now, however, Prentice was injured, and he would soon be reinjured so severely that he might be lost for the rest of the season.
After that pre-Christmas rally a new and more serious slump began. In the eight games before the current road trip the Rangers could salvage only a tie as the defense collapsed. Despite his personal feud with Phil Watson, Worsley was recalled to replace the shellshocked Paille, who had allowed 41 goals, including the quick six by Boston, in those eight games. By now the Rangers were clinging precariously to third place. They might repossess second place or drop to sixth by the end of the season without upsetting the form, for the very good reason that the race had no form.
Watson's needle might goad them into another fancy winning streak, or it might leave them sullen and despondent, as it had done more than once in the past. It is impossible, of course, to judge precisely how often, or for how long, a team may be induced to play over its head. One school of thought concedes that Watson's sharp tongue was immensely valuable at first, but insists that the team now wins, when it does, in spite of rather than because of him. The other and probably larger school, satisfied with the ride-'em-hard approach, says, "Just look at the record."
It is abundantly clear that the Rangers, when good, are very, very good, and when bad, are horrid. It is also clear that neither Bathgate nor Gadsby is playing as well this year as last, and that Fontinato, though certainly improved generally, is still playing to the galleries and belting opposing players too often when it is meaningless.
The great Ranger teams of the past featured precision passing and the try for the good shot. Today's Rangers, too easily ridden off the puck and just not good enough to link a series of superb passes very often, still try to play the same way. Consequently they are forced to scramble.
So far they have scrambled well enough to stand the league on its ear for a while and pack the Garden. "Give me .500 hockey from now on," says Watson, rattling his rowels, "and we'll make the playoffs again." The fans will settle for that. Not for 16 years have the Rangers given them so much to cheer about despite the bad streaks.